Despite severe strains between Washington and the Kremlin, top U.S. officials do not believe, as some Soviet spokesmen have suggested, that Moscow has "given up" on the Reagan administration.
Although these officials acknowledge there is no sign of progress in any of the disputes between the superpowers over Poland, Afghanistan, trade and other issues, they believe the Soviets remain serious in their bilateral discussions and "have not drawn the conclusion that they can't talk to this administration," as one official put it.
The idea that Moscow has little choice but to await the passing of a belligerently anti-Soviet administration that does not want to negotiate seriously is one with potentially important impact among critics of current U.S. policy, especially in Western Europe.
It is put forward by such Soviet spokesmen as Georgi Arbatov, the Kremlin's leading U.S. affairs "expert" whose views are given considerable exposure abroad.
In rejecting the validity of this Soviet line, one top official with extensive experience in dealing with Moscow makes several points.
The first meeting at the United Nations last week between Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and Secretary of State George P. Shultz was, the official stressed, "a very serious conversation, not dealing with motivations or intentions but with real issues." The two are to meet again today in New York.
Previous meetings between Gromyko and former secretary of state Alexander M. Haig Jr. were also serious, the official said, "which belies the propaganda line being taken by Arbatov."
In fact, the official explained, "We know so little about what the top Soviet leadership really thinks. We know what they say they think. And what they say they think, out of the mouths of the propagandists, I don't believe most of the time because they don't behave that way. When an Arbatov says 'we've given up' and then Gromyko sits down with us and has a serious conversation, we don't listen too much to Mr. Arbatov."
Similarly, he said, while there has been no breakthrough in nuclear arms talks in Geneva, the Soviets are pursuing those negotiations seriously. Private talks about the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and other subjects, while not leading to any progress, have been useful, the official said.
Furthermore, the official, who asked not to be identified, said he does not believe the Soviets can really "wait out this Reagan administration crowd" as a policy.
"The problems don't just sit there. They have got to deal with the fact that we are engaging in a buildup and restructuring of our military forces. They have got to deal with the problem of their virtual exclusion from the Middle East. They have got to deal with the problem they see because we are reacting to the threat in Western Europe" by basing new U.S. missiles there, he said.
"They can't just sit there for the next two or three years and say, 'We're not going to do anything or talk to anybody.' "
Like most Western specialists, he believes Soviet policy in many areas is immobilized by the fading health of President Leonid I. Brezhnev and the Kremlin infighting about who will succeed him. "It doesn't look as though there is a fully functioning government" in Moscow, and many decisions are being delayed, he said.
But he believes that Moscow is facing only partial paralysis, that the real Soviet crisis is internal and involves grim economic and agricultural problems that are structural and pose possibly wrenching internal reforms that the Soviets may not make.
In foreign policy, however, he believes that Moscow still can act in certain areas and that Gromyko is still looked to for leadership. If Brezhnev had to bring his military leaders into line as in 1972 for the first U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms limitation pact, he probably could not do it today, the official said. But the new arms talks are not at such an advanced stage, and some movement is possible, he believes.
Asked if the United States should seize this opportunity to be more accommodating in hopes of inducing better behavior and influencing the post-Brezhnev leaders, the official said:
"I don't buy that. I don't know what that buys you except more Soviet adventurism. I think now is the time for some very steady, predictable U.S. behavior in which they know that our defense effort is in place . . . and they see we are prepared to resist moves in the outside world where they might think they could deflect people's attention."
President Reagan's attitude towards Moscow is one of "deep suspicion," the official said. "He thinks what went wrong in the past is that we ourselves were not seen by the Soviets as being serious in meeting the challenges they put to us. But he is basically an optimistic man so he thinks there ought to be a way to negotiate.
"I'm convinced the president and the secretary of state want communications with the Soviets because it's too important not to have it," the official said.
Current policy thus is to maintain the defense effort, try to reach accord with allies on how to react to the Soviets and "sit tight and let things settle down on both sides. There are times when you just can't make progress on some issues so you've got to keep the door open . . . and wait for them to be in a position to move," he said.
Asked if the administration has the expertise to deal with the Soviets at such a crucial period, the official acknowledged that a more ideologically oriented group is in the White House and that the Soviets complain about the rhetoric. But U.S. diplomats also ask the Soviets if they have read their own, frequently harsh diatribes.
There is also a gap in the availability of longtime Soviet experts in the U.S. Foreign Service as many of the World War II generation leave.
But, the official says, "it isn't a detailed knowledge of the Soviet character that is lacking. These are simply tough problems.
"The best experts in the world, people who have the most knowledge, the most exposure, are not going to be able to overcome what are very, very difficult problems that are due, in large part, to a basic problem within the Soviet Union that needs solving."